Steeped in Translation
19 August 2016

Steven W. Beattie links LLP's interest in literature in translation with my own history at Montreal's Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival. In his "Editor's Choice" column in the September Q&Q, Beattie reviews Xue Yiwei's short story collection, Shenzheners, which is Xue's first book in English.

The opening story of the collection, "The Country Girl," is set on a train between Toronto and Montreal, where a Chinese passenger meets a woman who makes her living as a translator. She is a great admirer of Paul Auster's fiction and is reading his New York Trilogy, so she is astonished to discover that her fellow passenger is reading the very same book in a Chinese translation. Can it really be the same book, she marvels, looking at the indecipherable Chinese text? "The subject of translation," Beattie writes," is introduced in the opening story -- the only one not set in China -- and will persist, either literally or metaphorically, across the eight pieces that follow" (p. 30).

Shenzheners is not only a book steeped in translation, but is itself a work of literary translation. It originated as a collection of stories entitled Taxi Driver that was published in China, in Chinese, and this September it will be published in English in Montreal in a translation by the talented Canadian literary translator Darryl Sterk.

Darryl teaches translation in the Graduate Program of Translation and Interpretation at National Taiwan University, and his specialty is the translation of Chinese fiction into English. His published work includes Wu Ming-Yi’s The Man With the Compound Eyes (Harvill Secker; Vintage Pantheon) and Horace Ho’s The Tree Fort Over Carnation Lane (Balestier) -- and now Shenzheners. He lives in Taipei with his wife and daughter.

I was introduced to Darryl during a recent Blue Metropolis festival by another literary translator, Montreal broadcaster Yan Liang, who has herself published translations of Esi Edugyan's Half-Blood Blues and Kim Thuy's Ru in Chinese. Whether in Taipei or in Montreal, the world we live in -- Darryl and Yan and I -- like that of Shenzheners, is steeped in translation. 

"These stories," Beattie writes, "which take up subjects of love and loss and belonging, are steeped in an eastern sensibility and peppered with western cultural references -- beside Beckett and Auster, Xue references Shakespeare, Bach, Proust, and Kundera."

Beattie sees more of Beckett than of Joyce in the collection, but Joyce is there, too. Xue dedicates Shenzheners "To the Irishman who inspires me," and Xue is the one who makes the comparison to Dubliners that prompted me to look to old covers of the collection set in the Irish capital to inspire the design of this one set in the youngest city in China.

Shenzheners is not only steeped in an eastern sensibility but is also very much a Chinese collection. His stories about the people of Shenzhen are what have made Xue Yiwei's name in China, to such an extent that the Chinese print and electronic media have been devoting remarkable attention to the appearance of these stories in English. And it's because they're Chinese, after all, that they require translation.

The great emigré Chinese writer Ha Jin has this to say about Xue Yiwei: "Xue Yiwei is a maverick in contemporary Chinese literature. He stays alone and aloof, far away from restive crowds back in his homeland. For him, to write is to make a pilgrimage to his masters: Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Proust. He writes with deep devotion and intense concentration. His fiction often meditates on life, history, violence, exile. This selection of stories can open a window into the fiction world he has constructed. As an admirer of his, I salute his courage, his stamina, and his love of solitude."  

Yan Liang -- a great introducer and a great friend -- is the person who introduced me to Xue Yiwei here in Montreal and who also, years earlier, introduced me to the work of Ha Jin.

He came to Montreal at my invitation the same year that three Chinese women from Shanghai were participating in a number of Blue Metropolis festival events, but Ha Jin is politically suspect in China, and these three women chose -- or were advised -- to keep their distance from him, to such an extent that one of them declined to appear onstage with him for a scheduled event. Sometimes translators are most needed when they're not needed at all.

© 2016, Linda Leith

[Photo: Judith Lermer Crawley]

Montreal writer and literary translator Linda Leith created LLP in June 2011, six months after stepping down as President and Artistic Director of Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.



More Articles